Students pluck the ground rich with your first lover. Sitting Indian style, they blow dandelions into wishes and unpack bag lunches beside the brick mess where for years you melted their blood-ties.
You led the morning tour, navigating horse stables once barracks, stone holes that chilled lank asses of squatting cadavers, moats where blood and excrement pooled, rippling with the breath of last words. Several times you warned the students away from barbed wire fences, though no one had stepped near.
It’s overcast and a twitch of chill registers across their faces. They haven’t eaten since last night and the teacher feels righteous. “They learned the importance of remembering,” he says. You nod and survey the distance. Days like these—devoid of sun and every face a mirror—you want to speak out, want them to know who you are almost as much as you don’t.
From the moment they stepped off their coach bus, you steeled yourself for a barrage of questions. The few times you turned the tables, testing them, they responded with numbers. Great numbers weighed down with zeros and guarded by placeholders. Numbers too big to hold. Numbers that don’t hurt.
Your eyes catch on a corner of debris. Weatherworn brick camouflaged by spruce and carnations, here at their lushest. You can’t help but see the walls before they were demolished, from cornerstone to throbbing smokestack, wreathes of smoke marbling sunrise. Stare too long, your face grows hot, flushed with a lifetime never past. When you walked these grounds a boy yearning for a woman other than your country.
The seamstress, yours. Whittled to shadow, beveled eyes still beautiful. First you saw her was at the edge of her block, pillaging the ground for saplings to stuff down the throats of other orphans. Days later you found her outside her barrack, sewing the points of gold stars with a rusted fishhook and hem torn from her collar, rawboned children crowding in wait.
She stood in relief against the jutting ribs of babies suckling their mothers’ spent nipples and men rolling wheelbarrows of ash alongside the train tracks. A Jew Pole. A girl not yet a ghost of one.
Your first gifts she spurned. Cigarettes and ersatz coffee. These earned you her glower. Food she accepted. Hunks of bread not bound by sawdust, scraps of meat you smuggled from the kennel. She snatched these from your open palms without meeting your eyes, tearing them into rations as she backed away.
The thread gave her pause, a fleeting moment of boy meets girl. You asked her name and she refused, pointing to the numbers sewn across her chest. She braced for your wrath and you concealed your smile, taking her in: Eyes clenched. Fearless and terrified, marked but not damned.
The needles, you still believe, are what earned her trust. Thin spikes you armed her with, then walked off. Soon after, she agreed to meet you nights by the ovens, veiled under the arms of Birch trees. Husky plumes tarred the sky; the musky stench of roasted blood dulled by cold and disinfectant, and these were your best days. Your hands tumbling down her ladder of ribs, kisses and murmurs all yours, and in the dark she looked almost whole.
She, too, spoke in numbers. How much how many how much longer and oh the children are starving. Her words paced between kisses, her mouth stale from hunger and you didn’t know the difference. Those first times you clutched her wrists, prodding. Just like your father did your mother. Afterward, you’d zip your trousers, rubbing the chill from her shoulder blades and hum a few bars of Wagner. Just like your father did your mother.
Those nights she welcomed your gifts, asked for more. Bread and meat and blankets and oh the children are starving. You promised her work detail in one of the factories, stitching uniforms and holsters. All you asked was her name. Wanting her to give it freely, no longer content to lose yourself inside a number like the other guards did nightly.
The students trade snacks and one asks if there’s a gift shop. For them this isn’t real; it is the barbarity of their grandparents’ world. Something to study and know, a touchstone to gauge progress. You forgive them this, forgive all the classes you’ve guided. You overhear two students debating how so many went along. They reconcile it as the brainchild of a madman, intent to encapsulate every misdeed inside a single voice booming from beneath a bellicose stare and Charlie Chaplin mustache.
For you there was no other way. They appeared at your school, rounding up the boys and christening each one a soldier. At the news, your mother teared. Your father shook your hand, heartily and for the first time, adding a back pat like how he greeted men at church.
Son and patriot: You tell yourself they would have done no differently; if they had been handed the whip, history would be a lash across your back. Man and man: Every parent an instrument, every child a pus-riddled wound to be squeezed from the corners, every day a choice of them or you. God and monster: Your choice.
Now theirs, so you guide them. Show them domes of mossy hair and valleys of prosthetic limbs behind protective glass in the museums of old quarters. Suitcases that carried legacies lost inside the number. You hope the students remember just one, because one is biggest.
The glitter of first snow and the ovens glowed hotter. You took her deeper in the woods, beyond the stench, to the foot of the wires. At that distance the smoke spires and watchtower lights reminded you of winter in Krakow. This night she led, undressing you then herself. In the cold she held you closer, trapping you with her matchstick legs. You came inside her, convinced she, too, smiled as you lay atop your jacket and hummed another nothing song.
Rivka sounds sharper at night, the k snapping against the wind. She shared it as you stood yards from the latrine and stuffed your jacket with contraband before draping it over her shoulders. She told you it was her grandmother’s name and you thought, How beautiful.
Years ago, you brought your family here. Your wife spent the walk complaining. How much farther how much longer when will we reach the memorial and oh my knees hurt. Your youngest disappeared to play hide-and-seek inside the barracks with two Norwegian boys on holiday, while your eldest, your namesake, walked beside you, tapping his watch to remind you of his plans that evening.
Families huddled closer at night, beneath the arms of Birch trees. Women inched toward the glow, babies fastened in the nook of their mother’s arms, peeking out and reaching for warmth. But you never let them get too close, not until it was time.
At first you didn’t recognize Rivka, face swelled from beating, frenzied as your comrades frog-marched her before you. They brought her forth, bypassing the line, and in the blaze of the antechamber you couldn’t mistake her: a girl still not a ghost of one. Bare feet damp with permafrost, her stare unflinching and only for a moment did you meet her eyes.
“Warum?” you asked one guard. Why? He charged her with trying to escape. This Jew Pole. This Rivka, and you knew it wasn’t true. You told them to put her with the others beneath the arms of Birch trees, somewhere she could be engulfed and forgotten. You yelled about schedules, reaching out, unwilling to face her, beveled eyes still beautiful.
They slapped away your arm and laughed. Needles, thread, food, steel cups, ladles, these they found in a gunnysack beneath a plank in her bunk. “Und das.” And this. Sticks of peeled gingerroot sat in the guard’s scarred palm. You focused on these, wondering from whom she got them. For what she gave in return.
“Ende der schlange,” you yelled. Back of the line. Rivka retched as they threw her upon you, her face contorting against the stench of brimstone and charred flesh, sweat seeping from her pores. One guard remarked that the ovens were no place for children, then he stepped back to watch you lead her inside.
Head bent, you guided Rivka through the chamber. Shadows raged across her face in a frantic geometry, and in the light she looked almost whole. Arms resting on her belly, you considered the gingerroot; hoofed sticks of earth like your father fed your mother when she was fat with your siblings.
You expected her to give you away, to scream out all the times you gave stole came and that now she was two. But she said nothing. Ash crackled beneath Rivka’s bare feet, her eyes closed as if to ward off the mounting cries spitting out of each oven.
She didn’t fight as you stripped showered bent her across the metal sled and tied on her restraints. Eyes clenched, a tear broke through as she hummed a few mangled bars you convinced yourself was prayer.
You remember the full cheeks of the Jew who strapped her down before he stoked the furnace, the one who thought he’d be saved. You tried not to look at her, fought the urge to run your hands down her ladder of ribs and settle on the tiny swell of her pulsing belly. Once she peeked, you’re sure, silently pleading, Help stop please remember the children are starving. The Jew Pole Rivka, beveled eyes still beautiful.
You ordered the Jew to pack the furnace until the hiss of embers reached the Birch trees, while the guards who brought her conversed at the foot of the chamber. You heard nothing over the sizzle and scratching metal as you watched her fed to the blaze, recalling the faces of the men who came to your school, rounding up the boys and christening each one a soldier.
The teacher asks for how long you’ve worked here. Several students look up mid-bite, but you say only, “Oh, who can count?”
You don’t can’t refuse to tell them that you, too, are a survivor. That you, too, grapple daily with the high walls of this vortex. That when you indulge in remembrance, the favorite pastime of old men, these are the years that bubble to your mind’s surface. Enter these fences and never leave, this the men didn’t tell you didn’t know didn’t care when they appeared at your school, rounding up the boys and christening each one a soldier.
Framed in your mind is the face of the girl, beveled eyes still beautiful. Who measured you by what you gave and gave herself in return. Who stayed quiet as you reduced her to ash, as if sure you would help another—though you never did.
You live with your wife and children in a cabin not far from where students pluck the ground rich with your first lover. Only here can you pinpoint even a semblance of your youth, when boy liked girl. Only here, where you speak of history over the white noise of omission, do you hope to unyoke this burden.
Tell them, why don’t you? Speak up; yell above echoes of bloodless numbers and say I was am can never be anything else. Watch them conspire liquidate your ghetto sear your children strip you so bare that you swallow keepsakes and burrow through pits of shit when their backs are turned and swallow them again stand sentry as you dig your grave then empty the Mauser against your temple do nothing.
Watch them do nothing but board their coach bus and escape this fairground of God and monsters where for years you melted their blood-ties.
Douglas Silver’s fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Narrative Magazine, Hobart, Cream City Review, The Southeast Review, Callaloo, and elsewhere. Visit him at Douglassilver.com